Skipping Towards Gomorrah:
The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America
By Dan Savage Dutton
302 pages, $23.95
Question: How do you get from William Butler Yeats to Dan Savage in only three moves?
Answer: This book.
For starters, its title is a veritable symphony of homage, all in three little words. Here's the breakdown: "Skipping Towards Gomorrah," both in title and subject, riffs on "Slouching Towards Gomorrah," Robert Bork's book-form lecture on why America is morally going to hell in a high-speed hand basket.
Bork, in turn, adapted his title from Joan Didion's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," arguably the definitive set of essays on what we now affectionately call "the 60s" (eg: "well, you know it WAS the '60s" with wry smile and nostalgic head shake).
Savage identifies Didion's title-source: " 'Yeats' poem 'The Second Coming,' which includes this line: 'And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?' "
Why is this important? Because Savage takes his cultural lineage seriously. He's out to pick up where the dialogue about American culture has left off, and he's dead set on making his turn on the floor interesting enough to grab and hold your attention.
When I lived in Seattle and religiously read Savage's hilarious weekly sex-advice column, "Savage Love," I thought he was one of those people who'd re-named himself -- like sunny people who asked to be called "Sunshine." I figured from the tone of his column that this guy had chosen "Savage" as a way of laying claim to an identity. The name-as-manifesto approach to self-invention.
Of course, I was wrong; he was born Savage.
But the name does fit the man and writer he's become -- he's blunt and honest, and unafraid to expose himself in the service of getting to the bottom of things. This book is about exactly what its title promises -- Savage is dependably literal minded that way. He's taken notice of the exploding trend of "conservative scolds" (Bork, William Bennett and Pat Buchanan in particular -- with Dr. Laura, Bill O'Reilly and Pat Robertson as pinch hitters) and this book asks the question: IS America a moral sewer that's getting smellier every day? What are our sins, exactly? Religious or secular, moral or ethical, what defines American wrong-doing, and is it really that bad?
Savage cheerfully admits to practicing top-down research: HE thinks most Americans, sinning or not, are good, upstanding taxpayers who aren't hurting anybody by pursuing their highly individual happiness as is their Constitutionally guaranteed right. With his thesis thus postulated, he packed up and set out on a cross-country tour designed to prove himself right and the 3 B's of conservative-scold-dom wrong.
In his words, "the bad" are frequently more virtuous in their private pursuit of vice than the good are in their public pursuit of compulsory virtue. For example, regarding our war on drugs. Savage offers himself as an example of a casual pot smoker, and proposes a complex and enthusiastically (if shabbily) supported explanation for America's enormous, well-documented pot habit: we work too hard, we're too productive, we don't take enough vacation, THC alters our time-perception machinery, and so -- QED, who needs to have 5 minutes of "restful, restorative sloth" feel like 4 hours of sloth more than Americans?
Nobody, that's who -- and if we want to stay the best gosh darn country in the world, we'd better lay off the drug war and let the American workforce blaze up the chronic in the comfort of their Barcaloungers every now and again.
Funny? Very. Ridiculous? Probably. Sillier than some of the theories championed by Dr. Laura? Well, that would probably be a question of taste.
Like Michael Moore, Savage wants equal time for a liberal agenda, and is happy to use the same tools as his opposition. And because he considers himself a spokesperson for a silent majority of sinners, he's got to get your attention somehow. He does it with honesty, humor, self-disclosure, judicious use of shock-value, and a sympathetic description of his fellow sinners in all their glory.
Each chapter of "Skipping Towards Gomarrah" is dedicated to the exploration of a "Deadly Sin," its practice in America, and its consequences.
I'd never think to compete with Savage's own beautifully summary chapter titles, so here's the list (with short descriptions following).
1) Greed: The Thrill of Losing Money. (Dan goes to Dubuque, Iowa, to gamble on a riverboat, wonders why anti-lust-and-drugs conservatives are so curiously hot on gambling, then answers his own question.)
2) Lust: The Erotic Rites of David & Bridget. (Dan meets some happy, healthy, God-fearing, suburban swingers and wonders why they're not as feared and reviled as happy, healthy, God-fearing, homosexuals.)
3) Sloth: I Am Not a Pothead. (See above.)
4) Gluttony: Eating Out with Teresa & Tim. (Dan goes to a fat-acceptance convention, eats a mountain of chocolate cake at Claim Jumper, and muses on the causes, consequences and culture of American consumption.)
5) Envy: Meet the Rich. (Dan spas it up with the ludicrously rich and powerful, and discovers the hidden relationship between decadence and deprivation.)
6) Pride: Jake and Kevin and the Queen of Sin. (Dan celebrates Gay Pride in Los Angeles and explains why he, a gay man, thinks Pride is doing the gay community more harm than good.)
7) Anger: My Piece, My Unit. (Dan goes to Texas, learns to shoot guns and like it, then proposes a peace accord between Second Amendment fans and First Amendment fans.)
There's one final cherry-on-the-sundae chapter you have to read to believe, but it involves New York City, his-and-her escorts, and an attempt to commit all seven deadly sins in one night. It's a fun-filled read to be sure.
Savage is admirably outraged, razor-sharp and wildly entertaining for the duration of "Skipping Towards Gomorrah." His chapters bubble over with intensity and facts, and though he gets off to a slightly wooden start, he's corrected himself by the time you're a few pages in. Once he picks up speed, he slows down only to provide an occasionally redundant overload of supporting statistics.
Savage uses another Yeats quote to kick off "Skipping," -- one that speaks for itself: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity."
"Skipping Towards Gomorrah" seems to be offered as a gesture of correction. In Savage's view, Bork, Buchanan et al are the passionate worst, and he's here to use his intellect and skill to light a fire under the collective hiney of the complacent best.
To Savage, the personal truly is political -- more than most, he is the well-raised, contrary, high-achieving child of the '60s. He questions authority, but isn't afraid to come down on the side of his middle-American roots where his own values dictate. The result is a truly honest and informative book chock full of close-ups of American culture today.
What more could a reading public ask for? Yeats, Didion and perhaps even Robert Bork would be proud -- though, of course, that would make them sinners.
Emily Simon is a freelance writer living in California.